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KARL BARTH AND THE WORD OF GOD

Karl Barth’s distinction as arguably the most influential and important theologian
of the 20
th
century has very little to do with the sheer volume of his work, although at
over 600 books and articles it is quite impressive !or does the label result from some
brand new area of theological thought never before contemplated "ather, it is the timing
of his theology, in the aftermath of the #nlightenment and $ust before the dawn of
%odernism, that led to Barth’s impact on the thinking society
Barth’s theology was radical in the way it completely opposed the popular
thought of the early part of the century &t brought him great criticism from colleagues
and peers and even cost him at least one prestigious university position 'owever, it’s
universally accepted that most every (merican and #uropean theologian during that time
and since has labored either to apply and continue Barth’s work or to discredit it
"egardless, they have all been, and will continue to be, influenced by him
)
*heologian
#berhard +ungel, a student of Barth’s, wrote in ),-2,
Barth’s personal and literary influence profoundly changed the shape of .hristian
theology across confessional boundaries, significantly altered the direction of the
/rotestant church, and also left an unmistakable imprint on the politics and cultural
life of the 20
th
century Barth defied both the enduring and the passing currents of
his time, even as he was conditioned by them 'is unmistakable genius was a
product of the times and their need for renewal, and at the same time it was a force
behind the changes that occurred during this century
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&ronically, Barth did not consider himself a revolutionary or a church patriarch
'e thought himself entirely ob$ective theologically, philosophically, and spiritually (nd
it was this mindset that allowed him to advance his, at that time, e0treme theology
Barth’s ideas can best be understood by focusing on the one area that begins and
carries and ends seemingly every word that came out of his mouth in lectures or was
produced by his pen in books1 the three2fold doctrine of the 3ord of 4od
(ll .hristian theology has always been done in accordance with scripture #ven
those theologians and schools of thought that stress tradition or e0perience have always
been kept in check by the scriptures But, at the turn of the century, the precise role of the
Bible in theology had still never been completely identified *hat’s the reason Barth’s
ideology had, and continues to have, such an impact 'is )5 volume, -,000 page Church
Dogmatics, the work with which he’s most closely associated, spelled this out from the
start Barth emphatically declares that the Bible is not a book of man’s thoughts about
4od and the actions of 4od, but rather 4od’s intimate thoughts and actions about and
regarding man (ccording to Barth,
the Bible tells us not how we should talk with 4od but what he says to us6 not how
we find the way to him, but how he has sought and found the way to us6 not the
right relation in which we must place ourselves in him, but the covenant which he
has made with all who are (braham’s spiritual children and which he has sealed
once for all in +esus .hrist &t is this which is within the Bible *he word of 4od is
within the Bible
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*heology never begins with history, e0perience, human consciousness, progress,
self2awareness, or philosophical speculation Barth says it begins and ends with the Bible
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Barth’s three2fold doctrine of the 'oly 7criptures seeks to understand the Bible as
the word of 4od in *rinitarian form1 as revealed in the incarnation of +esus .hrist, as
written in the scriptures themselves, and as proclaimed in the preaching of the church
(nd $ust as neither of the three forms of 4od can e0ist separately from the other two, so it
is with 4od’s word &n describing this interrelation, Barth wrote in the initial volume of
Church Dogmatics,
*he revealed Word of God we know only from the scripture adopted by .hurch
proclamation, or from church proclamation based on 7cripture *he written Word of
God we know only through the revelation which makes proclamation possible, or
through the proclamation made possible by revelation *he proclaimed Word of
God we know only by knowing the revelation attested through 7cripture, or by
knowing the 7cripture which attests revelation
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9et us first e0amine the 3ord of 4od as revealed in +esus .hrist, which Barth
claims to be the primary form of 4od’s word *hat viewpoint naturally agrees with the
apostle +ohn who wrote that, :&n the beginning was the 3ord, and the 3ord was with
4od and the 3ord was 4od,; +ohn )1) and, :*he 3ord became flesh and made his
dwelling among us,; +ohn )1)8 *he 3ord, 4od 'imself, becoming flesh is the
revelation &t’s the singular thought around which all of Barth’s theology revolves and the
starting point for all of his teachings *herefore, all religious talk 222 all talk of 4od,
creation, humanity, salvation, glory, the church 222 boils down to +esus .hrist &t all draws
out of the &ncarnation of .hrist &t’s repetitious and redundant to speak of these things and
of +esus as separate 3hile modern theologians are discussing theories of human
e0perience, hermeneutics, and historical analysis of understanding, Barth departs from
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this because :his understanding of 4od as 9ord will not permit the thought that human
reality is some relatively independent sphere within the terms of which 4od must
appear;
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4od speaks to man through +esus .hrist 'e communicates to man, 'e reveals
'imself to man, and 'e reaches out to man through .hrist =or Barth, all of 4od’s
dealings with man are in and through +esus (ny knowledge we have of 4od comes
through .hrist
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=or :anyone who has seen me has seen the =ather,; +ohn )81, (nd it’s
this revelation that lies at the very heart of scripture and the preaching of the church
&t’s :none of self and all of *hee; thinking &t was intellectual suicide (nd it
could not have been more different from what every other theologian in the world was
practicing
*he Bible as the actual written scripture is the second tier of Barth’s three2fold
doctrine of the 3ord of 4od *his thought alone demands almost 500 pages in Church
Dogmatics 9ike the &ncarnation, the Bible is a field of divine activity, an instrument of
holy communication *he Bible and its writers are used by 4od to testify that 'e has
already spoken and already acted 'e commissions human words to witness to 'is
revelation activities (nd 'e works through the church’s use of the 7criptures, clearly
seen in the way that Bible attitudes and Bible practices characteri>e 4od’s people in the
church
?

=or Barth, the Bible is not the revelation itself *hat still goes, and will always go,
back to the &ncarnation of +esus But the 7criptures point directly to that .hrist #vent and
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witness to that #vent as it impacted humanity &t’s a collection of human te0ts by human
writers that functions as the bearer of the news of the revelation (nd that revelation is at
the very center of the Bible *he @ld *estament writers look ahead to .hrist while the
!ew *estament authors look back &t’s $ust human words on paper and ink But it
becomes the 3ord of 4od in the event of the revelation
-
+ohn ' 9eith, a /rofessor of
*heology at Anion *heological 7eminary in Birginia, wrote of Barth’s teachings in ),?6,
*he Bible as the forward and backward looking testimony to +esus .hrist sets the
boundaries and is the unique authori>ation for all .hristian theology6 that is to say,
all statements of .hristian theology must be $ustified by reference to canonical
7cripture
,
@f course, Barth acknowledges that the Bible is human speech 222 that it was
written by specific men at a specific time in a specific place for a specific purpose But
it’s at this point in his theology that he, again, takes a drastic turn away from the
dominant thought of his day Barth claims that Bible readers must be shaped by the divine
3ord they encounter every time they open the Book &nstead of applying history and
culture in one’s interpretation of the 7criptures, one should simply allow the 7criptures to
say what they say &t’s a miracle, according to Barth, the way the Bible speaks to its
readers (nd by our normal course of e0egesis, we attempt to limit and contain that
divine act of 4od’s communication @ne should not view the 7criptures with suspicion,
but with consent +ohn 3ebster wrote in his book on Barth’s life and theology that Barth
cannot be understood unless we :see how drastically he is revising the task of .hristian
theology, by trying to depict its $ob in relation to a .hristian way of life;
)0
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(nd, finally, Barth defines the third facet of the 3ord of 4od as the preaching of
the church or church proclamation (nd even that does not adequately describe what he
meant by the term .hurch proclamation, to Barth, is everything that comes out of the
church 222 not $ust sermons, but all proclamations 7unday school lessons, spiritual songs,
$ournal articles, church tracts and pamphlets, children’s stories, and personal testimonies
all constitute this third trait of 4od’s communication to man
(gain, like the &ncarnation and the 7criptures, this area constitutes a place of
divine activity &f the church’s preaching, human proclamation, is true to its calling6 if it
allows the 3ord of 4od to be its commission, its theme, and its criterion for
proclamation6 then it becomes an event of divine speech *here is :divine willing and
doing; in the :willing and doing of the proclaimer,; writes 3ebster, thus making the
preaching event a miracle
))
Barth had begun developing this theology as a professor at 4ottingen &n ),2?, in
a lecture delivered to his friends in Bremen, he declared that .hristian preaching is a
proclamation of the mighty acts of 4od, not a proclamation of the acts and works of man
*herefore, Barth would not allow that $ustification or sanctification are works of man but
are, combined, the achievement of 4od’s grace in man Both are acts of 4od
)2
&n fact,
everything we proclaim as faithful witnesses to the revelation are works of 4od *he
proclamation is 4od communicating 'is revelation and 'is saving acts of grace through
the church
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But how is it that the very words of 4od can be spoken by sinful manC Barth
claims that it works much like the sacraments (t communion, the bread remains bread
and the wine remains wine, even after the blessing But the sacraments are used by 4od
to communicate the idea of communion By the same token, the human words of
.hristian witnesses are still merely human words, even after much prayer and meditation
But the words, fallible as they are, are used by 4od to communicate 'is love in the
revelation to mankind
)5
*o briefly sum up Barth’s three2fold doctrine of the 3ord of 4od1 it is a
communicative act which 4od 'imself undertakes &t is not merely a compilation of truth
or a set of statements, but a comple0 act in which 4od has spoken, 4od is speaking, and
4od will speak 4od encounters man through the act of 'is revelation in .hrist
D&ncarnationE, through the confirmation of that act by the prophets and the apostles
DBibleE, and through the continuing testimony to that act by the .hristian community
D/roclamationE
)8
*he 3ord of 4od, which is present in every act of communication and revelation
between 4od and man, can never be reduced to historical or physical conditions &t is the
self2presentation of 4od and so must remain somewhat of a mystery
&t is in that way that Karl Barth completely turned, and continues to turn, modern
theology upside down 'is ideas have weathered storms of criticism, the most severe
being stirred by his own contemporaries *heir beliefs were that 4od’s reality has
everything to do with man’s history of understanding and man’s human e0periences
?
Barth counters by claiming that, if 4od is 9ord, then man is creature and servant
(nd 4od as 9ord does not permit even the thought that 'e must appear in our human
reality
)<
(n outspoken critic of Karl Barth, 4ordon ' .lark, wrote in ),65 that Barth’s
doctrine of the 3ord of 4od was immature, obscure, and poorly designed 'e claimed
that Barth stretched too far in coming up with his three facets of 4od’s 3ord in order to
relate it more neatly to the *rinity of 4od (nd .lark points out the inconsistent manner
in which Barth identifies the revelation with the =ather, the scripture with the 7on, and
the proclamation with the 'oly 7pirit 7houldn’t the &ncarnation of the revelation be
associated with the 7onC .lark says Barth forced it
)6
3hen Barth speaks of 4od’s commissioning preachers to proclaim the 3ord,
.lark asks, does that command give the preacher his messageC *o Barth’s contention that
every church proclamation is the 3ord of 4od .lark replies, howC &f a preacher
proclaims that +esus was e0ecuted by a firing squad or that King Favid walked on water,
how can that be 4od’s 3ordC *he message must maintain some sense of historical and
moral truth to be the 3ord of 4od .lark also charges the theologian with being
influenced by his strong bias against the "oman .atholic .hurch Barth believes that the
written word of the prophets and the apostles are far superior to any words that have been
written since 3e don’t control the Bible, it controls us *hat speaks directly against the
church as the ultimate authority (nd .lark cites the bias
)?
-
Barth’s critics argued that his theological reading of the !ew *estament too easily
dismissed the consensus regarding historical reconstructions *heologians were all but
unanimous in e0plaining the original meanings of Biblical te0ts in light of history and
culture *hey claimed that Barth was merely a naGve Biblicist who interpreted the !ew
*estament as a 7pirit2inspired work (ccording to most, Barth was abandoning the
critical task in order to e0egete :timeless ideas that could conveniently support his own
theological and dogmatic presuppositions;
)-

(nd Barth fought those criticisms fiercely &t is not that he regarded the Bible as
having no history and no authors &t is that he viewed the 7criptures from a different
starting point, a different mindset &t is comparing apples to oranges, historical critical
analysis to analysis by the 'oly 7pirit Barth maintained that one had to fully submit to
the te0ts as a .hristian in order to fully comprehend the te0ts as a student (nd in so
doing, the 'oly 7pirit works to interpret for the .hristian theologian %ark & 3allace
e0plains this in a ),-- article for the +ournal of "eligion1
=or Barth, the storied world of the Bible is not simply one world amidst a plurality
of other literary worlds6 as the 3ord of 4od is written, it is the divinely chosen
te0tual environment within which 4od in .hrist through the 7pirit is actively
present to the reader today
),
Barth aimed to unlock the mysteries of the Bible by studying it with a way of
thinking and speaking that corresponded to the thinking and speaking displayed in the
7criptures &f he thinks and speaks 222 and lives, even 222 as the prophets and apostles, in
full submission to the 3ord, only then will its true meaning be made known
Karl Barth was a preacher &n fact, it was his dissatisfaction with the popular
scholarly thought, and its uselessness in pastoring a congregation, that led to his radical
,
theological breakthrough (fter intense study in the early part of his ministry, Barth
$oyfully concluded that 4od still speaks through the Bible &n analy>ing the impact this
would have on Barth and every other theologian since then and up to the present, .olin
Brown writes, :*his is something quite different from saying that the writers of 7cripture
had some very remarkable insights into life *he key is in the fact that 4od continues to
reveal himself through these writings;
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(nd preachers of the 3ord of 4od then and now
owe Barth a debt of gratitude
Barth’s theology actually worked to elevate the role of preaching in our churches
and in our societies .hristian proclamation becomes much more important when the
7criptures are seen as the truly inspired communication between 4od and man *he
preaching event itself becomes an act of 4od in Barthian theology6 not 4od and man
working together, side by side, to proclaim the good news, but 4od creating the preacher
and controlling the preacher and the 3ord he preaches
2)

*o Barth, theology is not an intellectual e0ercise, not a hobby *he study of the
7criptures is life and death &t’s urgent &t’s right now &t touches every aspect of our
everyday lives &t is the 3ord of 4od to man (nd to proclaim that truth is to answer the
absolute highest calling
Barth was the driving force in bringing +esus .hrist back to the very center of our
7criptures and our preaching and our theology and our .hristian life =or Barth, +esus is
the central theme of the Bible and should be the focus of our study and our disciplines
)0
(s both 4od and man, as both human and divine, .hrist represents the covenant
between 4od and man, which, in any language, is the 4ood !ews
Before Barth came along, /rotestant thought had all but forgotten the living voice
of 4od in .hristian proclamation, assuming maybe even a :dead; voice of 4od in the
7criptures But he worked to elevate the role of the Bible in .hristian life and thought
Because the 3ord of 4od is so direct and so personal it tends to create its own hearers
&t’s impossible to speak of 4od or the 3ord of 4od without, at the same time, speaking of
humanity 4od acts through 'is word 4od speaks through 'is word (ccording to Barth,
4od is 'is word
(nd, finally, Barth’s assertion of the infallibility of the 3ord of 4od still rings
true today Asing %atthew <1)- as inspiration D:& tell you the truth, until heaven and earth
disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means
disappear from the 9aw until everything is accomplished;E Barth states in his Church
Dogmatics,
not even the slightest $ot or tittle of 7cripture can be destroyedHbased on the truth
that it has all been spoken by the mouth of the 9ord, the 'oly 7pirit #very slightest
line and stroke of 7cripture is due to the minute care of the 7pirit and even the
slenderest nuance of the writers is not in vain or displayed to us in vain
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*he Bible can be and is regarded by many as $ust another book &n a highly
pluralistic, secular society, and after the last century of critical2historical study of the
7cripture, the role of the Bible can no longer be taken for granted in theology Barth was
accused of being naGve and even simple in his approach to theology But one of the
))
shortest lines he ever penned seems to stand as the most insightful and the most far2
reaching, even into the 2)
st
century1 :(ll that is required is a firm resolve that the Bible
should be allowed to speak for itself;
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